San Jose: Homeless Hope Village residents return to dismantled encampment
Homeless resident Michael Ponce, 51, stands behind the former sanctioned homeless encampment in San Jose, Hope Village, on May 14 -- a few days before the area was swept again. Photo by Kyle Martin.

    Nearly three months ago, Silicon Valley officials thought they dismantled ‘Hope Village’ — an encampment of mostly homeless women — for good. But a few of those residents have returned to Hope Village, San José Spotlight has learned, and some are back out on the streets.

    “This is my only place of sanctuary,” said Michael Ponce, a former Hope Village resident. “This is the only place I’ve got.”

    In March, dozens of Willow Glen residents flooded community meetings to oppose moving Hope Village to their neighborhood after the Federal Aviation Association deemed the camp’s old site along Ruff Drive unsafe and local officials cleared them out. Most of the campers were moved into motels for a temporary stay, paid for by Santa Clara County’s rapid rehousing funds.

    Though they were cleared from the site and told it’s unsafe, some of the former Hope Village residents have returned to their old camp.

    After staying in a local Motel 6 for about a month, Ponce returned to the camp in April. He knows to travel light — only the things he can fit into a shopping cart —  because his experience tells him the camp is going to be swept again soon.

    He was right. San Jose officials swept Hope Village again last Monday.

    “I don’t have the time or energy to go anywhere else,” Ponce, 51, said. “I feel safe here, that’s all there is to it.”

    For Ponce, Hope Village was a place where he could shower, store his belongings and just “exist.” Being cleared off the site a second time — with no replacement camp on the horizon — Ponce said he’ll live behind the former encampment again, indefinitely.

    “I’m going to be avoiding the sweeps, staying ahead of them,” Ponce said. “And that’s all you can do.”

    Linda Clark, 60, another former Hope Village resident, also moved back to a now-fenced off area behind the dismantled encampment after a temporary motel stay.

    She turned down temporary housing and now sleeps tucked underneath some brush with her belongings.

    “I’m 60 years-old, I don’t need all the rules,” Clark said. “For me, I knew it wasn’t going to work out…I wanted to come and go as I please.”

    The place she decided would work out best was right back near Hope Village because that was her “stepping stone.”

    That wasn’t the county’s plan for her, Ponce or anyone else at the former camp, according to Ky Le, Santa Clara County’s Director of Supportive Housing. But very few residents — Le says just three of them — had been on a path to permanent housing before Hope Village closed.

    “Hope Village — it wasn’t designed to be this interim housing program,” Le said. “They weren’t necessarily enrolled in our permanent housing programs first.”

    This included a plan to house some of the former Hope Village campers through the county’s nonprofit partners, including getting them on the list for the now-open Second Street Studios. But due to the stain of the region’s housing and homeless crises, Le said, the county couldn’t place all of the residents in time.

    Of the 17 people from Hope Village, Le said three of them have made it into permanent housing. The rest made it into temporary housing or went back to homelessness. Le blamed it on a lack of resources and an incredible housing shortage.

    Le said the county attempts to track the former residents’ whereabouts, but he was unaware that some of them returned to Hope Village.

    “The reality is we’ve got more people out there than we can house at any one time,” Le said. “So we, as a community, need to figure out ways to house people more quickly, get more units online, get more subsidies out there, make the economy work for more people, you name it.”

    And the most recent homeless census numbers show that homelessness is getting worse throughout the county, which Le acknowledged. The county’s homeless count went from 7,394 in 2017 to 9,706 this year – a 31 percent spike – and the city’s homeless count spiked from 1,822 in 2017 to 6,172 this year, a 42 percent increase.

    “Do the homelessness prevention programs that we have in place work for the people that are being served? I think the answer is yes,” Le said. “As a whole community, are we reducing the causes [and] reasons why people are falling into homelessness or being very unstably housed? The answer is no, and we’ve got to start working on that.”

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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